REGINA — Questions about access to supplies are emerging as health officials and community leaders work to contain spread of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan’s far north.
The region has seen a spike in cases in and around the remote Dene village of La Loche, a community of 2,800 about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Leonard Montgrand, the regional representative of Metis Nation-Saskatchewan, lives in the community. He said it’s getting scary because infrastructure isn’t set up to respond to the crisis.
“We are losing control,” he said.
“We need to get that infrastructure set up. We need to get things in place.”
One of two grocery stores in the village recently closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. The company that owns the store said in a statement it will try to reopen as soon as possible.
“For us, a day without both grocery stores operating is difficult,” said Georgina Jolibois, a former member of Parliament for the region.
She said people will have limited access to fruits and vegetables, as the one store that remains open is already busy. Surgical and cloth masks were quickly scooped up and getting cleaning supplies has always been tough.
Some physicians and medical students in the province have launched a GoFundMe campaign to get cleaning supplies and non-perishable food to La Loche. It had raised more than $10,000 as of Friday afternoon.
La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre said residents are OK for now. He expects the closed grocery store will be up and running again in a day or two.
Council has also requested the province close down the village’s liquor store to prevent people from leaving their homes and gathering, he said.
“Inhibitions are not really there when you start drinking.
“For the safety of the community, at least for this week or next week, to contain this virus, those are the measures that we have to do.”
Twelve of 13 new cases announced Friday by the province are in and around La Loche. A Facebook group providing community updates said Thursday there are 111 active cases in the village and 14 in the nearby Clearwater River Dene Nation.
Of Saskatchewan’s 544 total cases, 179 are from the far north. Two elders from La Loche have also died from the illness.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday the La Loche outbreak is one of the worst in Canada, “in terms of numbers happening in a vulnerable Indigenous community with a number of First Nations reserves around it.
“This is really a combination of factors that make it very alarming.”
Much of the transmission in the community is happening through young people, added Montgrand.
He said the village is developing an alcohol monitoring program for residents and setting up a homeless shelter.
Ashton Lemaigre, who moved back home to La Loche after finishing a university degree, said people addicted to drugs and alcohol are having a harder time with physical distancing.
“There’s a lot of people who I know that are doing a lot of drug activities that are still out, even though we have security and we have curfews.”
Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the Saskatchewan Party government should have seen the risk the virus posed for La Loche and been more prepared.
Premier Scott Moe said there have been supply shortages to the community but they are “very short-term.” The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency said 300 more cleaning kits were to arrive in La Loche on Friday.
Conservation officers and Mounties are manning checkpoints to restrict non-essential travel in the region.
La Loche is also exempt from participating in the first phase of the province’s reopening plan, which lifted public health restrictions on medical services this week. Retail shops and hair salons are to open later this month.
Moe said the government worked closely with northern leaders to decide on the travel restriction. But they were not unanimous in how it should be restricted.
Ric Richardson, mayor of Green Lake, a village of 500 people south of La Loche, said travel in the area wasn’t restricted until the end of April. The leaders asked for it to be blocked back in March.
“To say that we’re becoming frustrated is an understatement,” he said Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2020
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press